Friday, January 11, 2008

a Southern white woman tries to puzzle out her own racism

I'm not sure if it's okay if I permalink my blog, but I should link the post that got me thinking.

Let me state, in advance, that I know I have a problem. I also know I'm about to get it wrong. Quite likely the whole time. For anything and anyone I offend by being the racist I know I am, I will apologize, because no one deserves to be written off for things that have nothing to do with them and are based on an attribute that is nothing they should have to compensate for, which is my understanding of racism; it's a bunch of stuff that the individual has nothing to do with which are tied to the color of their skin, something that they should not have to compensate for. If, in the process of reading this, you become troubled, feel free to let me have it. Maybe I'll learn something.

I am writing about this not to cause pain in anyone, but because if you do not examine your beliefs and background, if you ignore the things you have been taught, you are doomed, to a great degree, to relive them. And it's not like refusing to talk about racism makes it magically disappear. Silence does nothing to give us remission from our national cancers.

To talk about this, I feel like I must establish my credentials: I was born in Louisiana in the 70s, something that will set off a certain expectation for some of you and not others. My family is very Southern, from fairly exclusively Louisiana and Mississippi, and has been there a long time, to hear my mother tell it. I was shocked to discover that one of my mother's aunts, who we visited when I was a child, lived in a plantation house. I asked when I was 10 what the rundown shotgun house just to the left of the house was and was told in was 'domestic servants' quarters. I'm sure you know what I found out about it, later. My mother is proud of her Southern heritage, and taught me that the KKK were a land-owners and gentleman's club that was the equivalent of the neighborhood watch (which is only remotely correct, while missing the point, if you're a white, upper to middle class neighborhood member who complies in all ways to the neighborhood expectations.) My grandmother, who was one of the only relatives to ever want to see my brother and I, sat me down at 16 and told me that all black people were descended from monkeys (based on that whole skull argument), something she had learned in the highest level of education she had received, high school. Take for granted that I know most, if not all, of the Southern racial slurs from that period, 'genteel' or vulgar, that can be applied to black people. Also take for granted the dating talk that I wonder how many people also received about what I will and will not be breeding or associating with.

Even writing this, I feel both saddened and small, in the sense that I feel stupid, petty and unworthy. However, no matter how I do or do not feel, if I am anything moral, I am compelled to try and be less of an asshole. I hope that the buck, family wise, stops here.

Discrimination is an odd beast. It is my observation that people who do not suffer it frequently do not care because they do not see it. This means that the reason I care about this should be articulated. I expect that this post will be troublesome. If you are reading and you know what I'm doing wrong, please (if you want to), tell me. I will go out on a limb and say that the reason I care is that I see something similar between myself and the people who have been the target of the family ire. These are the ways: I have been snubbed and I can only imagine how much more that snubbing is for a person of color. My family rejects me and I them, so I have been motivated to examine the things they have taught me. I am, to some degree, queer, and having been exposed to things like a waitress refusing to serve me when I was cross dressed and out with a girl, men I've worked with telling me that good dick would convert me or being angry that I looked at the same girl they did/bugging me about watching, stares and name-calling based on my appearance or the 'unnaturally masculine' quality of my actions. I have been summarily shut out of churches and bible studies because women should be silent and meek and kicked out of my daughter's principle's office because I objected to her calling the police (my bumper stickers made the other parents uncomfortable. She told them the occupant of the car was a peeping perv. For some reason I objected to that, can't imagine why.) I have seen people lock their car doors and shying away/keeping the kids away from me as I passed in my punk days, also when I was homeless.

How much more, then, for people of color? I am white, female and relatively good looking. I do not carry my non-conformity in the very shade of my skin. In fact, my skin makes things a little easier for me. How much more of this behavior would I get were I black and female, Hispanic and female, Japanese and female, Chinese and female, Filipina, Latina, Chicana, anything else? How can I stop myself from letting something slip out of my lips that makes things that much worse? How can I stop the flow of assumptions, sometimes assumptions I do not even catch until later, from making someone else feel invisible? I think if I can be aware of myself, I will be that much more effective stopping it outside myself.

The quick answer is merciless self-examination. It's difficult at best to examine yourself in a merciless fashion. I know it's impossible to search yourself in an objective way, but my job, as I see it, is to get as close as I can and not slack. I must know myself, must get to the rotten root of every assumption I make in the hope that I will get better and be fair to the people around me.

I have to do something about it, as well. To some degree, because I am a writer, I must write about the process. I hope, if I have something productive to say about the process, that I will offer a way to see things to other white women. Who knows?

I began, as I think a lot of white girls do, by trying to date across race lines, which only turned out poorly, because it's equally as unfair to make someone 'the token date' as it is to refuse to talk to them or to call them names because of their race. Dating someone does not make you challenge your assumptions. Sometimes it makes you quite complacent in them. (As in, 'see, here's proof that I'm okay. I'm one of the good guys. Love me!' As in objectifying, yet again, another human being.)

I think I have to talk about it, to find a community willing to put up with my shit or to read things that challenge me. In other words, to be active about being less of a racist. It is very important, I think, to challenge myself or be challenged on the subject; it makes me think. I am deeply sorry to any community I have troubled in the process and any community I continue to trouble. I hope I earn (as in I hope that I keep trying in ways that are legitimately fruitful so that I'm not acting like I've already got there just because someone takes pity on me) some forbearance or are granted some out of the good of someone's heart. It's likely to be the good of someone's heart. Often. Not that it means I should stop trying.

I think I have to challenge people, as well. Not because I'm enlightened or some shit like that, but because the process requires someone to say 'none of that shit, here.' This is the single most problematic thing to do, for me. The humor I have been instructed to react in is deeply racist, sexist and otherwise problematic. Despite knowing this, my first reaction is still to laugh. Yes, I'm definitely not enlightened. The only thing I can think to do about that is to examine what I'm really laughing at and to tell people what the assumption the punch line is based on. I'm sure this is why I'm occasionally thought to be humorless, which is funny, because I laugh a lot, mostly laugh at myself. I'm sure this is self-absorbed navel-gazing (a theme, here; me, me, me) in nature, but I know laughing at myself is less likely to cause trouble.

Challenging people is also difficult for me because I fear being wrong. This will seem funny if you've read my other posts, but this is the single area I'm timid in, because I just know I'm getting it wrong but I'm not always sure how. I hate not knowing. This should not stop me, but it occasionally does. You'd think I'd be used to my foot in my mouth, and I can shrug it off on most things, but I am so very complicit here that I'm afraid to speak. I fucking well am going to talk anyway when something flies by that I recognize, because if I am wrong, at least the subject is not invisible around me and maybe someone will call my shit to the carpet. (To anyone who has ever called my shit to the carpet, thank you for bothering and I am striving to be more graceful about the process.)

Thank you for reading this far on what is quite likely a troublesome post. I think that's it for now, though I hold the hope that I will be that much less evil next week, next month, next year. I don't think I'll ever be 'perfect', because the insidious nature of racism is such that it must be combated every day of my life, or I will fall back into it, because the racism I recognize is designed to appeal to me. I benefit from it, after all.


PortlyDyke said...

I think that the fear of "being wrong" is one of the things that keeps white people from really engaging in dialogue about racism. I wrote about that at Shakesville a while back.

I believe that racism, like sexism and homophobia, are so automatically absorbed that the only antidote is exposure and constant self-awareness -- and that much of that awareness really comes up for me when I'm actually engaged with other humans -- which can be messy, and scary, and means I'm going to be wrong a good bit of the time.

The wonderful thing about being wrong is that it gives you a chance to "come right" :)

mouthybitch said...

Thank you, portly. Having read shakesville for while, I value both the time you spent reading it (cause I think your opinion is well informed and thoughtful) and knowing that the approach I muddle through is working somewhere else (which means it might continue to work for me.) So I'll keep being wrong and making myself respond, instead of shrink.

I've been sitting here kicking myself, despite knowing better. :) Have no fear. I will continue to kick myself. Sometimes I even get a running start.